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The difference between speech and language development

What’s the difference between speech and language?

In everyday life, the terms ‘speech’ and ‘language’ are often used interchangeably. However, when health professionals use those terms, they are actually describing two different things. For example, when a speech-language pathologist says someone has a ‘speech delay’, that’s different to them saying someone has a ‘language delay’.

Here’s why.

Speech is about verbal communication and the features and functions that impact on the clarity of a person’s verbal output. It’s about how clear we sound to others when we’re talking. Speech is produced using the anatomy of the mouth and respiratory tract (including the lungs, vocal cords, lips and tongue) in a highly-coordinated fashion to create sounds that make sense to the people who hear them.

Aside from the articulation (or pronunciation) of words, speech can be impacted by the rate of speech, pitch, volume or other characteristics. Someone may speak softly and quickly, for example, or have difficulty articulating certain letter sounds, which makes it hard for others to understand them.

Language, however, is any system used to communicate meaning. It can include spoken or written words and symbols, plus hand and body gestures. Auslan, for example, is the sign language of the Australian deaf community. It’s how we share ideas, express our needs and interact with others.

Speech and language difficulties in children

Because speech and language are different, so are the disorders associated with them.

In children, a speech delay or disorder usually presents with speech sound errors that impact on their speech clarity. For example, they could be having difficulty with accurately producing certain sounds, or missing out on saying some sounds in words, or replacing some sounds with others. Speech therapy for kids helps to address speech difficulties like these.

When they’re learning to speak, it is natural for young children to make “errors” with some sounds. You’ve probably heard a toddler say “lellow” when they mean “yellow”, for example, or exclaim “look at the big twuck!” When articulation errors still occur past a certain age, it can indicate the child has a speech delay or impairment (we’ll explain more about speech milestones later).

In contrast, because language is about meaning, a child with a language delay or disorder can have difficulty understanding what is said or have limited vocabulary to communicate their needs, wants and thoughts. Or, they may have difficulty with both understanding and expressing language.

Difficulty in understanding what is being said is known as a receptive language difficulty. Difficulty in communicating what they want to, such as their thoughts or needs, is called an expressive language difficulty. For example, a child may be able to pronounce words perfectly, but have difficulty finding the right ones or putting them into a logical sequence.

A child who is understanding or expressing less than what is typical of their peers could have a language delay.

Speech and language delays or impairments may occur separately. Other children may have both types of difficulties. Sometimes, one type of difficulty can impact on the other.

Speech therapy for kids can help with both expressive and receptive language difficulties.

adult holding a clipboard with the letter S on it, with a little girl holding a mirror practicing sounds

Speech and language development what to expect

While children develop speech and language at different rates, certain skills usually start to emerge by certain ages. These speech and language milestones can help you know whether your child’s skills are developing typically.

Here’s a guide about what to expect in typically developing children aged 12 months to five years.

12 months

  • Starting to understand simple commands (the word “no”, for example)
  • Can recognise their own name and familiar sounds
  • Can understand the names of familiar objects and people
  • Beginning to produce a few basic words between 12-18 months of age
  • Making babbling sounds that imitate speech
  • Uses body language and vocalisations (to get attention, for example)

Two years

  • Speech can be understood 50 percent of the time
  • Producing the sounds m, n, h, and beginning to use some others
  • Can say more than 50 words
  • Producing some two-word combinations (bye mummy, for example)
  • Understands simple two-part sentences and directions
  • Uses words more often than gestures to communicate
  • Beginning to use language with peers

Three years

  • Speech can be understood 75 percent of the time
  • Producing the sounds p, w, d, g, k
  • Can follow familiar directions and understand ‘wh-’questions (who, what, when, where, why)
  • Understands basic location concepts such as ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘under’, and other descriptive words such as ‘hot’, ‘big’, ‘soft’
  • Uses negatives (for example ‘no’, ‘not’, ‘don’t, ‘can’t’)
  • Uses three-to-four-word sentences in a simple conversation

Four years

  • Some speech errors are expected, but they can generally be understood in conversation
  • Producing the sounds j, ch, t, b, l, s, y, f, sh
  • Understands the names of basic shapes and colours
  • Strong use of language during play to communicate with peers
  • Asks ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions
  • Large vocabulary and able to produce four-to-five-word sentences
  • Uses basic grammar, with some mistakes expected (eg ‘I falled down’)

Five years

  • Speech can be understood almost all the time
  • Beginning to produce the sound r (still may have difficulty with z, th, v)
  • Understands opposites (eg big/small, wet/dry)
  • Uses longer sentences (approximately 6 words) with mostly correct grammar
  • Explains ‘why’ things happen (eg ___because ___)
  • Follows more complex, three-stage directions
  • Expresses how they feel and explains events and occurrences

Communication development milestones from 12 months to five years

Speech Pathology Australia have developed a guide to communication milestones, outlining expectations for speaking and understanding in children aged 12 months to five years.

Infographic on communication milestones for children 0-5 years old

Source: Speech Pathology Australia, 2020

How to help your child develop speech and language skills

Children learn speech and language skills by watching, listening and imitating what they hear and see. Usually, the most important teachers of speech and language are a child’s parents.

You can do many simple things to help your child develop their communication skills. Remember, children take time to learn new skills and are likely to make many mistakes along the way.  Lots of repetition and practice are key to success, so be patient and persevere!

It also helps to be consistent with your language and praise your child for success

Here’s some language activities to try with your child:

  • teach them how to greet others, by saying hello and goodbye
  • sing songs associated with specific times or activities, such as bath time or bedtime
  • build upon their knowledge as you go about your daily tasks. For example, talk about your shopping trip or visit to the library.
  • use mealtimes to talk with your child. For example, you could teach manners, name the foods you’re eating, describe how they feel and taste, what you like and dislike, and what you do when eating (such as bite, chew and swallow).
  • sort various objects into sizes, shapes and/or colours
  • organise a treasure hunt to help your child learn location concepts (such as under, behind, around} and object names
  • talk to your child about what they (or other people) are doing to help them associate words with actions
  • talk to them as you play. Use words they know and model word combinations at the child’s level (or slightly above it)
  • use visual, auditory and tactile cues to enhance understanding. For example, help them connect pictures with words, predict the sounds in a new word, or guess how something feels (smooth, soft, rough etc).
  • pay attention to their communication attempts and give specific praise.

Learning happens best when kids are relaxed and engaged, so keep your speech and language games fun and interesting and never force your kids to speak.

Signs your child may have a speech or language delay or impairment

It’s important to remember that children develop speech and language abilities at different rates. But If your child isn’t developing skills in line with expected milestones, it could indicate they have a speech or language delay or disorder. Signs that may be of concern include your child:

  • not understanding their name, the word ‘no’, or simple commands by 12 months of age
  • not saying any words by 14 to 16 months of age
  • being unable to answer basic “wh” questions (what, where, who) by three
  • having difficulty being understood by people outside your family after age three
  • being unable to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end by age five
  • showing limited vocabulary development compared to their peers
  • having difficulties with using correct grammar or words in a sentence
  • showing difficulties with speech development, articulation, stuttering or dyspraxia
  • having issues with voice quality, volume, and awareness
  • experiencing frustration and difficulty expressing themselves.

If you are concerned about your child’s speech or language development, it’s important they are assessed by a speech-language pathologist. Don’t delay getting an assessment, because early intervention is known to achieve better outcomes.

How does speech pathology help?

If you’re wondering whether speech pathology will help your child, the good news is that speech-language pathologists are highly qualified professionals with expertise in helping kids with speech and language delays or disorders.

Speech-language pathology can help your child if they’re struggling with communication issues, such as expressing themselves, understanding instructions, pronunciation, lisping or stuttering. Speech-language pathology is all about helping children learn to speak and communicate clearly – vital skills for now and the future.

Speech therapy for kids works by helping them to:

  • understand what is being said to them
  • speak clearly by learning skills for correct articulation
  • create sentences that effectively express their needs, thoughts and feelings
  • manage speech impairments such as lisping and stuttering
  • develop voice control – quality, volume, tone, pitch and awareness of voice
  • develop oro-motor skills including movement and muscle tone in the jaw, cheeks, lip and tongue and structure of the palate, teeth, and tonsils.

At Growing Early Minds, our therapists are all certified practising members of Speech Pathology Australia. They are experienced in working with children who have complex needs, developmental delay or disability (including autism) and who have experienced trauma.

Find out more on our speech language pathology page, get in touch on 1800 436 436  or message us at

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